The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: November – December 2020

bookshelf books
Death of a Rainmaker: A Dust Bowl Mystery by Laurie Loewenstein

I read this because my wife was reading it for book club. Plus the idea intrigued me–a mystery story set in a piece of history rooted in Americana. I had never heard of it, the author, or the publishing company before. But I thought I could use a break from the robots and aliens.

The thing is, it’s just tedious. The characters are dull as dishwater. There’s no intensity to the mystery. There’re no stakes. It’s as dry as the dust bowl it’s telling about.

The thing about a mystery book is that bad mysteries contain large swaths of text that don’t matter to the plot. In a good mystery, the entire story is the mystery, not side characters or subplots. Knives Out, The Da Vinci Code, The Maltese Falcon, The Silence of the Lambs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even the false leads, the red herring, still matter to the plot.

So for example, this book has a suspect. They spend time investigating them, thinking he’s the killer, but then it turns out to be wrong. And the audience knows this all the time. So you feel like you wasted time reading that part. It’s not dramatic irony, it’s page filler. This feels more like a regular book that got labeled “mystery” for marketing purpose. Maybe that’s why I don’t read them — I don’t like plot threads that end at a wall.

In a mystery, all the parts are important. Finding evidence A leads to talking to suspect B who points a finger at witness C who we find out was with D who lied about artifact E which suspect B wants and so on. It should be “buts” and “therefores”, not “and thens”. I don’t mean it has to be a complex web, but “Garfield’s Babes and Bullets” was a more intriguing mystery than this.

This book is for old ladies who just want a comfort read. They don’t want anything surprising or challenging. There’s no diversity in the book–no black people, no immigrants, no one ethnic, no Native Americans, no gays, no Jews. Just loud, white males and one white female (the wife of the investigating sheriff).

Oh, there is one blind guy who runs the theater, so I guess you can check off “disability”. Thing is, he’s an asshole, so it’s not exactly glorious representation. Not to mention he doesn’t figure into the story whatsoever. He’s not even a B-plot, he’s a C-plot. I’m not sure what role he’s meant to play? The struggling entrepreneur during the time of economic hardship?

I would rate it three stars, but my judgment criteria means I wouldn’t bring anything two stars or below to a desert island with me. And I wouldn’t bring this with me — I don’t want to read it again.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

It’s a funny book. But at three-quarters of the way through, the humor started to wear thin. I recommend you don’t read it all at once. You don’t have to read it in sequence. Take breaks, read something else in-between. The jokes are intense and fast, but it’s overwhelming. As in, it’s not relaxing to read. Maybe it has a Police Squad effect.

Police Squad is a television show from 1982. I learned about it in high school in a unit in English about films. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s hilarious–and why shouldn’t it be? It’s from the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker trifecta. The same people who did The Naked Gun, Airplane!, Hot Shots, and other fantastic comedies. But Police Squad only lasted six episodes. Why?

Because it was too much for viewing audiences who wanted to relax and watch TV. If you watch The Naked Gun and Airplane!, you see there are a TON of jokes. Visual gags and puns and subtle humor and slapstick and parody and fourth-wall breaks. There’re even jokes embedded in the credits (if you have the patience). But it works because, in a movie, all your focus is on the movie. But with TV, you’re talking to people, you’re relaxing with a glass of wine, you’re going to the bathroom, you’re talking with your wife. Police Squad forces you to pay attention to get all the jokes, because there are so many.

In Furiously Happy, the biggest flaw is that the same joke gets told over and over. I get it — you’re a wacky mentally ill woman trying to have it all and still survive and you’re into weird stuff like raccoon taxidermy. Basically a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But real because she has rheumatoid arthritis, bouts of depression, and personality disorders.

I’m thinking maybe I’m not cut out for non-fiction memoirs by underprivileged women. It started off so strongly, but at a certain point, I just got overwhelmed by her.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

From now, if I need an example of a novel written exclusively for male audiences, this is what I’ll think of.

I suppose you could call it a science-fiction thriller. The problem is it brings up plot questions, but doesn’t answer them.

The story is about a guy with a wonderful satisfying life, just that he chose family over becoming a famous scientist. Then he’s kidnapped in an odd way, taken to a strange building, and knocked out. He wakes up in a hospital/laboratory where he’s being lauded by a bunch of people who seem to know him, but he doesn’t. So instead of sticking around to ask some questions, get reoriented, and learn what’s going on, he takes the idiot ball and breaks out of the lab into a world he doesn’t know with no allies or money.

So pages and pages go on of this guy wondering what happened, where he is, why things have changed. And I’m yelling at the book “it’s an alternate timeline, idiot! Haven’t you seen a single episode of Star Trek? Or The Twilight Zone? Donnie Darko? Sliding Doors? It’s a Wonderful Life?” This isn’t a foreign concept. It’s like people in zombie movies never using the “Z word”. Being genre blind, either as character or author, doesn’t disguise the concept as original.

And that’s the thing–I’ve seen all those movies mentioned above, and so has the discerning science-fiction audience. I already know every concept and plot point in this sort of story. I knew this guy was going to find his wife, freak out that it’s not her, she’d freak out on him, someone from the alt universe would help him for no reason, and so on. There is some cleverness halfway through in regard to where it takes the idea of all the other alt timeline. But it doesn’t make the main character any more likable.

Speaking of which, this book is pretty misogynist. Or at least not forward-thinking. The guy’s wife is a huge factor in what drives the story goal. Except she’s not really a player in the story. She has all positive personality traits and never makes a mistake, like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s the ball being tossed back and forth, the prize to be won. This is why I say this was clearly written for men.

It’s like Taken combined with Community‘s “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode. The premise is capitalizing on the “defend my family so I can justify violence” power fantasy that is trending, like John Wick or anything involving Gerard Butler or Denzel Washington, although none of them have a science fiction twist like this does. Too bad that playing ignorant of its legacy couldn’t save it.

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

I read the first one with an open heart, but without a critical eye. But through the years, after reading others’ takes on it, I’ve come around and no longer believe Ready Player One is the five-star delight I originally thought.

Most significant was the central theme, that being “if you obsess over something enough, you will get it”. It’s the kind of thing entitled fanboys use to ruin things like Star Wars, Rick & Morty, sports, elections. It results in cults like YouTube content creators and QAnon. They think if they sink enough time into something, there’s a reward at the bottom of the well. Like a “nice guy” who believes being nice to a girl equals points on a “sex card” that he can trade in at some point. They think that because they invest time and money into someone else’s creative work, they possess a share of it. In other words, Sam Sykes’s stages of a toxic fandom: “I love this. I own this. I control this. I can’t control this. I hate this. I must destroy this.”

Plus, the lack of diversity, the weird sex, the total absence of female perspective, and me learning what good characters, good plotting, and good writing looks like, I came into this sequel with glasses un-smudged by nostalgia. Long story short, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake of naivety with this book.

Eight years have passed between book one and book two. Years which included a dismal sophomore follow-up and a popular Stephen Spielberg movie. Mr. Cline has had plenty of time to gain perspective on his work. Develop himself as a writer. Improve his craft, his tastes. Learn the mistakes he made in the past, correct them, and grow ambition for something that exceeded his original vision. That is the hope I had coming into this.

That hope was false.

This book is much the same as the first. In fact, it feels like both the protagonist and the author haven’t learned a thing from the previous book. The pop culture references are even more unnecessary and jammed in there (no one cares that you woke up to Soul II Soul). The story and characters are the same shit as the first one. No sign that Cline learned anything or developed his skill. This could be marketing (just give them the same slop that sold last time) or it could be laziness.

It starts with summary and summary and summary. No dialogue or characterization. All showing, no telling. The story doesn’t really start until a third of the way in, just like last time. Until then, all you’re getting is setup and backstory, and it’s sad. The main character is the CEO of the world’s biggest company–basically Facebook and Nintendo combined–and all he does is play video games all day. He loses the girlfriend he made in the last book because he goes all-in to sucking more people into the virtual world he now owns. He stops talking to the real-life friends he needed in the last book, and spends all his time in the OASIS instead of running the company. It’s like he learned nothing.

For the first 33% of the book, we just follow him in his routine. The author tries to give him “Save the Cat” credit by having him give away money on education (in his VR game) and providing rigs to poor people (for his VR game). He gives so much money away I wonder how his company makes a profit.

And this is part of the virtue-signaling in the book you’ve probably already heard of. I didn’t think virtue-signaling was a real thing until I read this. I thought it was a false flag made up by reactionaries and trolls to hate on people doing good. The triggering incident I’m talking about is when the main character meets a girl he likes (in the simulation). And just like in the last book, he violates her privacy, spies on her, digs up information (this time using his CEO privileges which violate the privacy policy and could get him in jail), and discovers she was assigned male at birth.

“Discovering this minor detail didn’t send me spiraling into a sexual-identity crisis…” Since his VR game allows him to have sex as anyone with anything, he’s realized that “passion was passion, and love was love.” Two things here. One, the fact that he’s only using gender in relation to sex (i.e. whether or not I’d do her) and not her character as a whole. And two, the author doing the same thing–using her gender status as the sole identifier of her character. This tidbit is the only thing I remember about this character. She does nothing in the story. She shows up two times, both as a “plot coupon” to help Wade out of a sticky situation. In other words, not exactly well-rounded. Virtue-signaling is when you tell people you’re “woke” without showing it through action.

So that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what’s left. The new “thing” in the story is technology created by the CEO who left the previous easter egg hunt. It’s called ONI and it’s a direct neural interface, meaning you can now touch, taste, and smell everything in the game. How the hell did this guy have time to design an expansive virtual world AND run a company from scratch (meaning marketing, management, customers, capital, facilities, etc.) AND build the hardware for the company AND architect the program the hardware would run on AND engineer the software to run on the hardware AND invent totally new equipment, in secret, that’s basically the singularity. By himself!

And like I said, the first 33% of the book is just this–setting up the book. The aftermath of winning the contest, finding the new ONI, releasing it to the public, shifting culture again so people spend even more time in a simulated world so the real world can go to pot. What reason is there to spend in reality anymore?

After all that summary the story finally starts and guess what. It’s ANOTHER Easter egg quest, designed by the founder (how did this guy have time to take a shit?). Go here, traverse the world, solve the clues, get the token. And it’s all eighties themed again. So yeah, guess what. You’re getting more of the same. Wade finds the path to one obstacle, finds the way around it (it’s not even detective work, it’s using trivia and video game powers), then moves onto the next. And everything is jammed with 80s pop culture. It makes the whole book a game of “I understood that reference.”

What is the reference Captain America understood? - Science Fiction &  Fantasy Stack Exchange

Unless you can win that game, you’re not going to have any fun. For example, they spend three chapters on the Prince planet. Prince the artist. Three chapters on Prince’s entire history.

Here’s Ready Player Two’s basic structure. Imagine a football field. Our main character is at one end and the goal is at the other. In-between there are seven blockades. All the character has to do is climb over them, one after the other, to get to the goal. Character is at point A, wants to be at point B, gets to point B without any meaningful problems or deviations that surprise the reader. The end. This is number one item in Strange Horizons’s list of stories seen too often.

A better story would involve no obstacles at first. Then, at the twenty-yard-line, an impassible wall springs up. Our character has to dig under it, or scale it, only to find murderous eagles along the way. The second barricade spans the width of the field, so he has to run through the stands, which breaks the rules and he has to avoid being seen by referees. But that presents a new problem as the audience tries to hold him back. If he gets through, the audience hates him stepping on them. And so on.

They say, in a good story, when a character is close to achieving their goal, the goalposts get pushed back. Would Mario Kart be any fun without the random items knocking you back and forth in the race? Ready Player Two is full of “and then”, “and then”, “and then”, when it should be “buts” and “therefores”.

So yeah, drop this one from your to-read lists. Cline has not demonstrated that he’s learned anything as a writer and this book feels like catering to edgelords and internet trolls that are like his characters. There was plenty of opportunity here to fix the mistakes and improve upon the first one. Change the POV character. Have multiple POV characters. Start a family to add some maturity. Go all-female version of the first book. What is it like to be the CEO of a video game company? What are the consequences of a worldwide phenomenon that’s sucking the life out of the planet? Nope, just more Willy Wonka fun & games from the 1980s.

If the theme of this book is “if you obsess over something enough, you will get it”, Cline should learn the opposite. “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.”

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

This is an epistolary science fiction novel mostly about unearthing alien artifacts. Big ones. Like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers sized. But it’s a novel about scientific discovery and exploration and puzzle-solving. Our three main characters are the scientist leader, the tough-as-nails fighter pilot, and a linguist deciphering what was left behind. Also there’s the “mysterious g-man” who’s pulling the strings and conducting the interviews.

The author weaves an intriguing mystery and really grips you out of the gate. There are huge pieces of a statue buried all over the world, like a disassembled action figure. Who left them? How do they fit together? How do we get them out of countries that aren’t exactly friendly to us? There’s a real sense of “how are we going to get out of this one” and “what is the solution to this riddle?”

This is all helped along by good characters. They are well-rounded and competent. Meaning there’s no gruff five-star general who just wants to use it as a weapon against the commies, or the pencil-necked politician, or the bad boy Tom Cruise with a huge ego, or a love interest whose only job is to get Tom Cruise where he needs to go.

Disadvantage: since it’s in epistolary format, all the action’s is muted. When a character is describing a climactic chase scene or a huge disastrous explosion, it’s always after the fact. In hindsight. That kills the suspense.

The cover makes comparisons to The Martian. I wouldn’t say you get as warm a character as Mark Watney or as whizbang of an ending. But you get a good meal. Quick and engaging. And I’ll be coming back to this restaurant to try the chef’s next special.

The Humans by Matt Haig
(unfinished)

I didn’t bother finishing this because the story was dull and the humor was hackneyed. Imagine every bad alien joke you heard in the eighties and nineties. Like all the material from ALF or Mork & Mindy or Coneheads. Not even Third Rock from the Sun material.

“Fish Out of Water” only works when the fish are fresh and the water is clean. This is the same damn thing we’ve seen a million times before. Alien comes to Earth and gets in trouble because he doesn’t know the customs. “Humans wear clothes! They wear these many layers of fabrics on their genitals!” Blah, blah, blah. You’re just using nerd language to describe everyday stuff.

And pointing out the oddity of what we consider commonplace isn’t funny anymore. “Aren’t noses weird? I am afraid of pudding!” It’s bordering on cultural insensitivity, even if it’s making fun of ourselves. I got my fill of that “anthropology through a mirror” BS by reading “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” in high school.

In addition, I never understood what the main character’s goal in the story was. But it sure didn’t seem as important as making fun of humans for their weird hair and pencils.

50353740
Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson

It starts quite well, but then it gets sluggy. There are some strange detours throughout, which means our main character wanders around for a time, and his actions aren’t really in service of reaching his goal. Instead it’s a “slice of life” kind of thing where we watch his antics as he does the rom-com stuff, gets advice from a mentor, falls for the trickster’s tricks, and so on.

The main plot is that a dentist-servant robot starts to get feelings. He’s not sure what to do about it, but he knows if he tells anyone, he’ll be erased. So what’s his solution? Go to Hollywood and write a screenplay that will make others stop thinking of bots as inhuman automatons. I guess he’s trying to pull an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?.

This is supposed to be a comedy book, but the humor grates because he keeps telling the same jokes over and over. I guess it’s supposed to be because it doesn’t fully understand sarcasm or irony. Which makes me wonder how he’s supposed to write a screenplay. Let alone THE screenplay. But I cannot take one more “Can you guess what XYZ is? You cannot! Humans!”

But it’s still heartfelt. It plays out pretty much how you’d expect it to so don’t expect any surprises. Plus the robots are barely robots–they pass for humans with no difficulty. So don’t come in looking for any cool robot stuff.

The Books I Read: September – October 2020

bookshelf books
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

A true sequel to the first–it’s a race against time to keep humanity alive after a meteor has crashed on Earth, giving it a much closer expiration date. The only solution is to travel to space. All of this was all in the first book.

Now that the space program’s been established, it’s time to put a colony on Mars. And our hero protagonist is part of the team making the year-long journey to the future with 1960’s technology.

It’s not a complicated plot, but it’s still very good. Better than the first. Since the majority of the book takes place on the ship, there’s less of the global cultural zeitgeist the first had. Like there’s no hemming and hawing over stage fright or anti-anxiety medication. Which is good — we dealt with that in the first book, and the character overcame those obstacles. No need to run that race again.

What we are dealing with is the products of those cultures bringing that baggage with them into space and the strife it causes. It’s civil rights on the smaller scale. The “women in the kitchen”, “screw your regulations, they’re dying out there”, “either have children or have a career” type stuff. The last book’s antagonist is now our protagonist’s captain, which makes for good drama.

And it’s all dealt with smartly, knowing you can’t win all the battles (especially in the 1960s). I realized it’s a little like The Hunger Games mixed with The Right Stuff. The conflict between the public image you have to present to gain the public’s favor so they support you and keep you progressing versus the gritty realism of the science, the hard work, and the fact that not all of us survive.

The prose is a little less technical, but that’s good. If you can understand Apollo 13, you can understand this. And I’m definitely going to pick up the next book in the series.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
(unfinished)

This is a collection of essays by Roxanne Gay, a teacher, Black woman, and political activist. Essay topics focus on race, LGBTQ, and women’s rights. They range from personal stories to opinions to “struggle” pieces.

I’m just not in a place for it. And I don’t know if I’d ever be in a place for it. I don’t need to feel ashamed for how I’m not “woke enough” these days. I get enough of that on Twitter. I get that being Black is hard, being a woman is hard, getting a Ph.D. while being impoverished is hard, teaching is hard, everything’s hard. I just didn’t get why I should care or why I should listen. Not because I don’t like the same things she likes (I don’t) but that I didn’t have a bond with the author. Does a non-fiction book need a “save the cat” moment?

This is the book that made me realize everyone has a different motivation for why they read. John Green said “I read because I am trapped in my one brain in my one body in this one place and I want to escape that prison.” Now you could interpret that to mean “I read to experience diversity” or “I read to live other people’s lives” or “to see worlds other than this one”. But for me, it means I read to feel less alone. I read to know there are other people out there like me who feel things like I do, in strange ways like I do, who see what’s wrong and right with the world in the same way I do. My favorite books are “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl” and “Looking for Alaska” and “Eleanor and Park”. I like the books where I wish I was friends with the characters, so we could be less lonely together.

This is not that kind of book.

It’s obviously for the educated and meant to educate others. And I have no doubt I would be educated by reading it. But it’s missing the charm that makes me want to spend time with this person. W. Kamau Bell and Lindsey Stirling and Hannah Hart had that. The reasons I stopped reading are similar to why I stopped reading We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby. I have no need for critiques of “Gone Girl” and “Fifty Shades of Grey“. I’ve seen those to ad nauseum on YouTube. And when your beliefs are full of conflicts and you proudly proclaim that, that invalidates your thesis in my opinion. You can’t have it both ways–there has to be equivalent exchange.

Dead Star Park by Mark Hill

This is a horror-comedy a little in the vein of David Wong (John Dies at the End), but in Adventureland. Basically the same plot too–disaffected teenagers work an amusement park, socializing, relationships, coming of age. But at this park, something sinister’s going on after close. Something unworldly.

Casey (the main character) is an excellent character to read about. The wit is there, the characters are *chef’s kiss* well-rounded. But the horror is blah. It never goes anywhere. There’s no sense of a goal or of goalposts being pushed back. Her “big problem” is seeing confusing visions and cryptic words to create “mystery” and “intrigue”. While the narrative hangs a lampshade on this trope, it doesn’t change that the plot never feels like it’s moving forward. The story goal didn’t even get established until 40% through.

Despite that, it’s still funny, small, and sharp (like all the best horror fiction is, unless your name is Stephen King). And it deals with teen issues you don’t normally read about. Not like peer pressure and smoking, but headier things like nihilism. And not the fun “Big Lebowski” or “Rick & Morty” nihilism, but the “what’s the point of anything” and “what am I even doing here” kind.

You laugh, but to a smart teenager with a shaping mind and probably some mental illnesses, that’s the kind of thing that can really drive a nail through your hands. So the author gets that right. And especially in the dialogue to “thinking” ratio. This book is for anyone who likes horror-comedy or Zombieland or the deeper teen angst movies like The Chumscrubber.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
(unfinished)

Monkeys!

The plot is fascinating and hard to summarize, but I’ll try. Basically, we tried to seed an Earth-like planet with a virus that would super-quick-evolve some apes so they would build a civilization for us to be waiting when our generational ship arrived. Two problems. One, the virus didn’t evolve the apes, it evolved the spiders. Two, the AI placed there to guard and watch the planet has gone rogue and isn’t letting our generational ship in.

There are twoish stories going on. One is the evolving spiders. Each scene break, the world develops a little more and you follow the descendant of “spider prime” through the centuries. There’s some incredible world-building as a collection of sentient spiders make a society. The second is the characters on the generational ship figuring out what to do, whether to force their way onto the planet they were promised or find somewhere else.

But I stopped reading because I realized I didn’t care about the characters. Interesting as the spiders are, it all reads like a documentary. The people on the spaceship are douchebags, hung up on their destroyed planet and generally being the worst human beings to each other. Not showing they’re worth saving.

It’s a little like “Leviathan Wakes” and “Wool” in terms of style, if you like that sort of thing. Me, I don’t. Long novels, multiple POVs, heavy on the hard science ideas, light on creating characters you want to spend time with. I had no one to root for. I guess some writers focus more on the concept than investment in a person.

Touch the Night by Max Booth III

A brutal thriller about two ghetto kids kidnapped by two “off” police officers. The elevator pitch alone strikes as Stephen King-like (From a Buick 8, Desperation) and that’s a compliment. But does the full novel follow through?

Yes, yes, it does. But only to a point. I was going to rate it four stars but the ending was unsatisfying. I don’t mind twist endings or hanging endings or even ambiguous endings. But there must be an ending. Endings mean resolution and there was no resolution about this. Being left with more questions than answers doesn’t equal a scary ending. Saw had a scary ending and it still answered everything. It Follows had a scary ending and it didn’t tie everything up, but it resolved the story. This is like “Well, I made my word count. Publish it.”

If not for that, it’s pretty good, and I looked forward to reading it each night. The characters are well-fleshed out and the relationships, both pre-existing and growing, are believable. It’s thematic of the boys’ friendship and motherhood-in-arms and being stymied by a system designed not to listen. That alone would be enough of an obstacle, but it’s combined with the vines of evil power controlling puppets from below.

The tagline calls it Stranger Things meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Maybe. I’d take out Stranger Things and substitute in Fresh (1992). Or the two kids from “The PJs” but without the funny. (Sorry, I don’t have a lot of selection.)

But given what I said about the ending, should you buy this book? I wish I could say. A bad ending can ruin a really good story (see Game of Thrones). I guess you’ll have to take a look for yourself and decide. Just preparing you for what you’ll get.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

What if you could put your brain in a computer… and it was AWESOME?

I feel like this is the closest I’ve ever been to someone who can capture the same blend of snarky comedy and well-researched science fiction that John Scalzi can.

The biggest challenge in a novel like this is that there is only one character. Which is because the plot demands it — it’s one person traveling alone for a long time. And when more characters are added, they’re the same character, because he can make copies of himself . So not a lot of diversity or dynamics in relationships. But at least it’s not due to authorial incompetence.

The best thing is that the main character is a regular guy. He’s a trope-savvy software engineer who doesn’t shirk away from the pop culture reference. He’s aware he’s in a 1950’s Isaac Asimov novel. In fact, he’s the only one of his “graduating class” that doesn’t go insane because he’s a brain-in-a-box because he likes it. He gets to live inside his mind, solve technical problems, explore space, and he can make his own friends. Sounds ideal to me.

It’s fast-paced, it’s witty, it’s got a layman’s POV of hard space travel science. I highly recommend.

Conceal, Don’t Feel (A Twisted Tale) by Jen Calonita

What if Anna and Elsa never knew each other?

Answer: The same thing that happens in Frozen.

Why do I keep reading these Frozen books that are the same damn thing as the movie? Is it because it’s a perfect story as it is?

This feels like an unnecessary script doctoring somebody found in the Disney archives. Like some executive had a deadline so he gave it to his sister’s kid who just graduated film school and said “here, give me something I can bring to the board meeting on Thursday.”

Like other “Twisted Tales“, the plot hinges on a cruel spin. This time, the spell to remove Anna’s memories goes awry. Now, if Anna and Elsa are too close together, Anna will turn into ice, like in the ending. So Anna is sent to a different village.

Not a great difference, is it? Anna’s the same person–bubbly and social. Elsa’s still introverted and proper. And they both lived somewhat separated in the original movie.

Elsa still creates Olaf. She still meets the deceptive Hans. She still reveals her powers in a fit of emotion. She still builds an ice castle (there’s even a chapter that’s essentially “Let It Go” in prose form. Now that’s exciting stuff.) She’s still captured and taken to the dungeon. Anna still meets Kristoff who takes her to find Elsa (who she thinks is in trouble based on no evidence). She still goes to Oaken’s. She still has a chase with the wolves. She still rushes to save Elsa from Hans at the end and turns into a frozen statue that’s healed by love.

If you change one thing, you’ve got to change the entire story. It’s a butterfly effect. Anna may not have a different personality, but her goals should change. The plot should change. She shouldn’t be concerned about government machinations. It’d be like if I was Kamala Harris’s long lost brother, but didn’t know it, and I had to find her before Mitch McConnell took over. I have no investment in that scenario–I’m distant in both the physical sense and familiar sense. I’ve got my baked goods to worry about.

And if you’re going to make a twisted tale, then the point of the twisting should be to show us a completely different story, not the same. Straight on Till Morning and Part of Your World did that and it worked beautifully. The conclusion of the movie never took place, so the story is totally different and the characters evolve differently. Ariel is consumed with regret and Wendy becomes an action girl. If Anna and Elsa don’t know each other, why not have them meet at the beginning of the story? Then we can watch their relationship form while they have an adventure that has nothing to do with Prince Hans or Olaf or the Duke of Weselton.

But redoing the movie is lazy lazy lazy. It doesn’t give the reader what they want, which is an “alternate universe” Frozen. This is, beat for beat, the same story. Everything’s just in a different order. It’s a waste of your time. Don’t read this book.

Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick by David Wong

It’s nice to read something that’s just a cleanly written, fun story that’s not trying to be a five hundred page epic or engineered toward a movie option.

I think this one’s better than the first (“Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits”) because I found it hard to wrap my head around the world-building and who they characters were (they all play the same role). Maybe now I know what this world is and what platform we’re standing on. The first one had a high-ish learning curve. This one doesn’t.

The basics? We’ve still got Zoey Ashe, a no-name millennial who inherited a city (essentially) after her mob boss father died and left everything to her. That includes all his businesses (legit and illegit), employees, mansion, and personal entourage of elite black ops bodyguards.

And the enemy? This time it’s something a little harder to fight–a throng of anti-woman incel supremacists. That makes the threat sound trivial, but not in a world where they sell cybernetic implants and homing beacons at Walmart. It’s a timely theme–how long and how much are you going to let these cyberbullies control your life. How much power do they really have? How do you fight an enemy that’s essentially a swarm of wasps?

Wong calls this bizarro fiction, but I don’t think so. It’s wacky, with some surreal science-fiction elements. But nothing bizarre. Bizarro is a convention full of William Shatners attacking a cult of Bruce Campbell worshipers. Bizarro is a Santa made entirely of sausages and elves having sex through extra-dimensional panties. Bizarro is your zombie girlfriend taking off her breasts so you can use them as suction cups to scale a wall.

Women may not find this as amusing since seeing Zoey harassed and trolled and threatened when that’s their every day life. But for men, it’s an important step toward understanding what it’s like to be on the receiving end of online misogyny day after day. I highlighted one passage in particular.

“I want, for the first time in my life, to enter an elevator with a man and not stand there with the knowledge that he can overpower me anytime he feels like it. I want to be able to go jogging alone, at night. And when I enter a room, I want the people there to take me seriously, because they know they have to.”

The Red Badge of Manliness

red badge of courage cover

Sometimes I read CliffNotes versions of old classics that I don’t particularly want to slog through, but am curious about. One of those is “The Red Badge of Courage”, written by Stephen Crane in 1895. It’s one of those classics you hear about, but no one you know has read. I left The Killer Angels unfinished so I knew I was going to have problems with this one.

But I didn’t know what kind of problems. I didn’t even like the summary. My biggest beef is the theme — glory and pride comes from war and battle. It sounds like toxic masculinity: violence is a means to an end, being injured is a good thing (that’s what the “red badge” is).

I feel like Hemingway wrote about courage and war better in “Soldier’s Home“. This book was praised for its realism, but I think it’s more realistic to war’s aftermath, trying to find peace with the PTSD. Cause you aren’t who you usually are in a war. And when you come back, you have to make restitution with the things you did.

red badge of courage cover

That’s not to say I don’t believe the contents AREN’T true. The reactions to war and battle seem plausible. The problem is that some of what the protagonist does is unforgivable, like leaving the tattered man to die just to avoid confronting his own cowardice. He spends most of his time feeling guilty. Particularly when he’s resentful of his commander or watching others fight with enthusiasm and thinking “why do they get to fight and not me”. Then he gets hypocritical thinking the men he saw running away were “wild” while himself running away was with dignity. And since no one saw him, he’s still “a man”. Sure, boy. Justify that to yourself however you want.

red badge of courage cover

There’s another element to this theme that a man who volunteers to risk death for a value is brave. Problem is, not all values are worth dying for. Plus, I always remember General Patton who said “The trick is not to die for your country. It’s to make the other bastard die for his.”

The theme would be better if it built on the secondary truism: that men in dangerous situations form close bonds and often act and think as one. That’s why they play so many team sports. My dad stayed friends with everyone he played football with in college. I’m friends with no one because I stopped playing team sports in elementary school. But there have been times when, because a group of us had to suffer together through something, I felt a stronger bond with them. One was the semester-long software engineering project in college. One time, early on, we just played online Yahoo Scrabble, working together, against someone who may have been a ten-year-old girl.

red badge of courage cover

This book is too antiquated to teach in school anymore. It’s got misaligned ideas of what’s bravery and what’s courage. It values the glory of war. And no women whatsoever. I hope this is getting phased out of the curriculum. Besides, we’ve got better media to showcase themes of courage under fire, like “Saving Private Ryan”, “Dunkirk”, and um… well, “Courage Under Fire”.

And IMHO, I’d rather they teach “The Long Walk” by Stephen King. It’s a better book about the will to live in the face of death that doesn’t have the “problems”.

Robots vs. Fairies

robots vs fairies close

So last month I read “Robots vs. Fairies”, a collection of short stories. I was a little disappointed because it wasn’t so much “versus” as “here’s robots and now here’s fairies” (except for one story at the end). But at the end of each story, the author declared whether they were “Team Robot” or “Team Fairy” and why. Even though the split is even, it felt like Team Fairy came out the winner. But I thought it’d be fun to declare my allegiance, even though I’m not part of the book. (They didn’t even *ask* me! *sniffle*)

Even though I probably read and produce more fantasy than science fiction, I play for Team Robot. This could be because of my unyielding loyalty to Johnny 5. It’s been demonstrated by my unyielding criticism of any other robot media because I know how computers work and how robots shouldn’t. I like computers, I like autonomous devices, I like the droids in Star Wars. I’m harsh because I care so much, like Anton Ego in Ratatouille.

anton ego robot

Stories with fairies are intrinsically lacking cohesion because it’s magic. Rules change from one book to the next. And sometimes they aren’t even consistent in their own universe. This is because fairies are tricksters and shapeshifters. The fey realm is unpredictable, emotional, and quick to react. In Magic: The Gathering, most of the fairy creatures are blue, the color of trickery and manipulation.

Of course, this is not a sufficient reason for taking one side over the other. I love fantasy and there are more stories with fairies that I like than ones that I don’t.

But here’s the thing. Stories about fairies and the fey realm are about how people in power treat us. It makes for good story fodder: a chosen hero, antagonist with impossible powers, mystery, vibrant settings. But stories about robots are about how we treat those under our power. (Ladies, this is why you always you should always go out with a guy who has a pet or grew up with pets. That way he knows how to care for something other than himself.)

Asimov’s “I, Robot” did it first and did it well, if you want an example. It kinda started the baseline theme for many robot stories, which is “where do you draw the line between tool and living being?” We’ve seen the results of slavery, we all know it’s terrible. But are you allowed to use slaves that aren’t human? That only differ in how they were created? How should we act towards those we hold absolute power over? The best novels provide questions, not answers.

Robots are basically slaves. It’s a paradigm you simply can’t avoid. And you shouldn’t avoid it. It’s something that needs to be reconciled. Think about the droids in Star Wars. They’re clearly intelligent, aware of their self as a separate entity from others, and respond to stimuli. Yet they are constructed, not born and grown over time. I think if we created autonomous intelligent robots, we’d treat them the way they do in Star Wars. Kinda like disposable pets. You can talk to them, but don’t get too sad if they explode, and you have no qualms using them as a meat/metal shield. Droids may be invaluable and expensive, but Luke’s not above using them as tools for getting into Jabba’s palace. C-3P0 and R2-D2 could have been easily destroyed without ever setting foot off the sand. And even Poe Dameron treats BB-8 like a puppy.

poe dameron bb-8 star wars

He even scratches his belly. Who does that with a robot? What does that accomplish. I think, even as much as I love robots, I can’t treat them different than a tamagotchi. Those stupid little eggs were meant to mimic a living creature — something that needs food, attention, and sleep. If not, it dies. But none of it’s anything more the programming. And the only way it can “die” is to be beyond repair. Does that do something to empathy? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure what the point of this post was. Anyway, here’s a robot and a kitten.

robot and kitten cat

My Kindertrauma: Wonderful Sausage from “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”

more scary stories to tell in the dark alvin schwartz

How about a change of pace? Let’s hit the pause button on films and go for some literature.

Now, I’ve never found reading very scary. It lacks the visual punch and timing. The best you can get is a sense of dread. I know some people say that when your imagination takes over, things are scarier. But for me, I know I have nothing to fear from my imagination — it’s in my head, the monsters can’t affect me there. It’s only as scary as I can make it. Lovecraft can’t stop me from giving Cthulhu a flowery hat like Mrs. Nesbitt.

But sometimes at night, when the shadows are on the wall, and something pricks you just right… ideas can’t be controlled so easily. The right combination of gross-out, terror, and fear leads to nightmares. Case in point: “Wonderful Sausage” from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.



This was another procurement from my mom’s college horror class. Why do I subject myself to these things? Was it a way to try and get closer to my mother? Was I just warped to begin with? Were sources of trauma becoming sources of arousal for me — the product of living a quiet, boring suburban life and this was my way to get safe thrills? I’ll never know.

Anyway “Wonderful Sausage” combines child abduction (which I touched on in Poltergeist III) and cannibalism. There’s also the horror of everyone enjoying it. I think something in my German roots was also attracted by the sausage. The fact that there’s little explanation behind the killer’s motivation makes it more intimidating. There’s no introspection, no thinking moments (as one expects from a campfire tale), it’s just a thing that happens — a guy snatches up men, women, children, puppies, kittens (not my cat!), kills them, and makes them food.

I remember one night laying in my bed, trying to sleep. Insomnia is a terrible thing, and I often had it. Usually a result of a fast and deep mind, made worse when toxic thoughts run around your head. And the shadows on your wall start to look like a butcher holding a limb over a sausage grinder. It was the same sort of thing that happened after Creepshow — my window looks like the Creeper is standing there, like a hallucination. Half-there, half-not.

Is Stephen King Getting Worse or Better?

stephen king

Stephen King’s going to go down in history as THE novelist of the late twentieth century. More than Dean Koontz or John Green or Danielle Steele. They even made a horror movie about him. I’m not talking about a documentary or his directorial debut (and finale) Maximum Overdrive or a thinly veiled pastiche like in “In the Mouth of Madness“. I mean he was the subject matter. He’s ceased to be a person, but a brand. That’s what I call being part of the public consciousness. Not even J.K. Rowling has that (yet).

But art changes over time. Simply because people change over time. Steven Spielberg doesn’t make the same kinds of movies he used to. Metallica’s first album Kill ‘Em All has a different style than Load, which has a different style from Death Magnetic. And don’t get me started about The Muppets.

It’s not all internal (meaning experience and skill). It’s mood, tone, technology, and situation. It’s the outside world and the inside world. It’s your mother dying or a civil war or a drug problem. Long story short, people change, so their art changes.

Stephen King’s been a non-stop train, publishing 1-2 books a year and countless short stories. But he’s not as “big” as he was in the eighties. Neither was he ever known for quality. He had a “People’s Choice” sentiment going on. Most of that is due to the nature of the genre (as in, if you write in a genre, critics ignore you). People still talk about It and Cujo and The Shining. Nobody talks about Joyland or Cell. Even Under the Dome became a TV series, but you wouldn’t know it unless you were paying attention.

While thinking about “On Writing,” my foundation for “how to write”, his advice seems to contradict his actions. And not just in his old books, which might contain rookie mistakes. I’m talking about now. There are so many of the same tropes and clichés in every book you can make a drinking game out of them. Harold Bloom accused him of “dumbing down America” when King won the 2003 National Book Foundation award. He’s been accused of overwriting, inflating the word count to make his books into doorstops, and making the customer feel like he or she got more for their money. This article, taking a snippet of a 2014 book, does better justice to my thesis.

So here’s my question: Is Stephen King getting worse?

You would think that the more experience you have, the better at something you get. However, the bigger you get, the more “yes-men” around you. They think your shit doesn’t stink, so they pass everything along because A) they know it’ll make a buck or B) if they say no, they’ll get fired. There’re fewer gatekeepers, fewer filters. If I was given the task of editing Stephen King, I would be very hesitant on suggesting any corrections. The man must know what he’s doing, he’s published so many books.

So let’s go to the data. Data never lies, right? I want to know if Stephen King’s trending up or down. Does he have a place in the world of stories today, or is it simply that we remember his name?

YEARTITLEGENREGOODREADS RATINGGOODREADS REVIEWSLIBRARYTHING RATINGLIBRARYTHING MEMBERSNOTES
1974CarrieHorror3.93382,0003.729,500 
1975‘Salem’s LotHorror3.99248,0003.9410,000 
1977The ShiningHorror / Psych Horror4.18836,0004.1115,000King moves from ME to CO
1977Rage*Psych Thriller3.823,0003.38747King moves back to ME
1978The StandPost-Apocalyptic4.34474,0004.3314,000 
1978Night Shift†Short story collection3.96113,0003.86,300 
1979The Long Walk*Psych Horror4.1180,0003.843,400 
1979The Dead ZoneSupernatural Thriller3.9140,0003.777,000 
1980FirestarterScience fiction3.85149,0003.646,600 
1981Roadwork*Psych Thriller3.5920,0003.841,200 
1981CujoHorror3.65168,0003.436,700King’s addiction intervention
1982The Running Man*Science fiction3.8168,0003.632,400 
1982The Dark Tower: The GunslingerFantasy / Western3.98374,0003.8615,000Originally written from 1977-1981
1982Different Seasons†Short story collection4.34139,0003.986,500 
1983ChristineHorror3.73158,0003.536,100 
1983Pet SemataryHorror3.91296,0003.729,100 
1983Cycle of the WerewolfHorror3.6236,0003.392,000 
1984The TalismanFantasy4.1287,0004.047,200 
1984Thinner*Horror3.67137,0003.415,300“Richard Bachman” is unveiled
1985Skeleton Crew†Short story collection3.9388,0003.775,900 
1986ItHorror4.19492,0004.0813,000 
1987The Eyes of the DragonFantasy3.9282,0003.827,500 
1987The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the ThreeFantasy / Western4.23160,0004.11,1000 
1987MiseryPsych Horror4.11356,0003.949,900 
1987The TommyknockersScience fiction3.4896,0003.336,500First book written after sobriety?
1989The Dark HalfPsych Horror3.74100,0003.566,000 
1990Four Past Midnight†Short story collection3.982,0003.715,700 
1991The Dark Tower III: The Waste LandsFantasy / Western4.24137,0004.0810,000 
1991Needful ThingsHorror3.87162,0003.697,500First book written after sobriety?
1992Gerald’s GameSuspense3.47106,0003.295,700 
1992Dolores ClaibornePsych Thriller3.8199,0003.645,700 
1993Nightmares & Dreamscapes†Short story collection3.959,0003.694,300 
1994InsomniaHorror / fantasy3.79110,0003.677,500 
1995Rose MadderFantasy3.6676,0003.485,400 
1996The Green MileFantasy4.42192,0004.238,400 
1996DesperationHorror3.8100,0003.596,800 
1996The Regulators*Science fiction / horror3.6454,0003.374,600 
1997The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and GlassFantasy / Western4.24122,0004.079,400 
1998Bag of BonesGothic fiction3.87138,0003.717,900 
1999The Girl Who Loved Tom GordonHorror3.56103,0003.446,500King’s car accident
1999Hearts in Atlantis†Short story collection3.871,0003.666,000 
2001DreamcatcherScience fiction3.59123,0003.326,600 
2001Black HouseHorror3.9945,0003.785,400 
2002From a Buick 8Horror3.4250,0003.294,800 
2002Everything’s Eventual†Short story collection3.9468,0003.756,900 
2003The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the CallaFantasy / Western4.17110,0004.038,300 
2004The Dark Tower VI: Song of SusannahFantasy / Western3.9897,0003.877,800 
2004The Dark Tower VII: The Dark TowerFantasy / Western4.27105,0004.147,800 
2005The Colorado KidCrime fiction3.2822,0003.22,400 
2006CellHorror3.64154,0003.458,600 
2006Lisey’s StoryHorror3.6555,0003.65,900 
2007Blaze*Crime fiction3.6630,0003.462,800 
2008Duma KeyPsych Horror3.9380,0003.895,800 
2008Just After Sunset†Short story collection3.8538,0003.713,600 
2009Under the DomeScience fiction3.89203,0003.847,800 
2010Full Dark, No Stars†Short story collection4.0370,0003.963,400 
201111/22/63Science fiction / alternate history4.29306,0004.27,400 
2012The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the KeyholeFantasy / Western4.1547,0004.072,000 
2013JoylandCrime fiction / mystery3.983,0003.92,400 
2013Doctor SleepHorror4.1117,0004.063,300 
2014Mr. MercedesCrime fiction3.92151,0003.852,700 
2014RevivalCrime fiction3.7569,0003.691,700 
2015Finders KeepersCrime fiction4.0366,0003.971,600 
2015The Bazaar of Bad Dreams†Short story collection3.9229,0003.911,000 
2016End of WatchCrime fiction4.0947,0003.911,000 

* Published under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman”
† Short story collection

Here’s our base data. Genres were taken from Wikipedia, which is authoritative as anything else with regard to the categorization of art. Now let’s plot these data points.

Well, this certainly… doesn’t answer any questions. The GoodReads ratings trend slightly down but the LibraryThing ratings trend slightly up. And neither in any significant slope. I’m comfortable saying the quality of his work (as rated by the people) has remained consistent through his career.

Again, this is not scientific. Some of these people voted for Trump. And, from this view, the spikes vary wildly. Note that not one goes higher than 4.4 and not one goes lower than 3.2. But as a writer, that’s a comfortable wheelhouse to be in.

So we’ve determined no change in how his books are rated. Mr. Mercedes is about as good as Pet Sematary. But how about the number of people picking up his books?

Ah, we see some trends here. But the data skews downward for a reason. Forty years have passed since Carrie. That gives people more time for people to pick it up than Duma Key (2008). So the downward line doesn’t necessarily mean people are dropping King from their reading lists.

Or does it? When was the last time you heard someone talk about him? Not in the “fine legacy of a horror writer” sense, but “what have you done for me lately?”

Here’s a thing I want to point out. Somewhere between 1987 and 1991, King got sober. I’m not sure which was his first sober book (one source said The Tommyknockers, another said Needful Things) but note that point in time on the graph. No book except for The Dark Tower 7 (the final book in the series) and Under the Dome (which had a big marketing campaign behind it) reaches above 200,000 readers. So the quality didn’t change, but the number of people who cared did. Did his content change with his sobriety? Was the bloom off the rose? I feel like something happened, but I don’t know what.

Here’s another interesting thing to note — Stephen King’s not really writing horror anymore. In the last ten years, only three books (that weren’t short story collections) were horror. More were categorized as crime fiction. Does that mean King’s sick of horror? Or he’s experimenting? I dunno. But I don’t think we’ll ever see another Misery or The Stand again.

Does King care? Probably not. I wouldn’t care. I would consider it a blessing. He’s made it. He still makes bestseller lists, for both old and new books (It is up there right now, thanks to the movie). And now he can write whatever he wants to. No deadlines, no pressure. Not even George R. R. Martin can say that.

Does any of this data mining prove anything? I guess it proves that, contrary to what I said before, maybe a person’s art doesn’t change as much as we think.

The Books I Read: July – August 2017

bookshelf books

norse mythology neil gaiman
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I expected this to be like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. And I got what I wanted. It’s a tightly paced retelling of the old Norse creation myths. Problem is, there aren’t many of them. I suspect that’s more to do with lack of surviving source material, given what Neil Gaiman says in the foreword. Maybe a long time ago there were scrolls and scrolls of Loki and Thor stories. Now all we’ve got are comic books. And if you’re any fan of Marvel’s interpretations, this is required reading.

The nice thing is that the re-tellings are up to date. I expected something Shakespearean or textbook-dry, like Hamilton. But the narration feels like an old storyteller sitting down by the fire, telling yarns to the grandchildren. The details behind Ragnarok and Fenrir and Loki are fascinating. It’s funny and suspenseful and creative. There are one-liners and drama and character flaws & flawed actions. It’s flavorful.

If you haven’t picked up Neil Gaiman before, this might be a good one to try. The content doesn’t consist of his usual dreamlike, abstract faire (that I’m not too fond of either). And you can tell it’s material he’s passionate about.

tough shit kevin smith
Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith

One night, before going out, Kevin Smith asks his wife “Can I stare at your asshole while I jack off?”

So depending on your reaction to that line, you can judge your potential interest in this tome.

Kevin Smith is, uh, an interesting fellow. Well, what I can I say? He was one of the voices of a generation. You look at the nineties and people think Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Kevin Smith. The guy is, at heart, a storyteller. I could listen to him talk about Superman and the Giant Spider all day.

And that’s what this book is. You get to hear how he met his wife, the making/publication of Red State, the Southwest “too fat to fly” fiasco, the up and down relationship with The Weinstein Company. The nice thing about Smith is he’s able to admit his wrongs and justify his rights. He never assumes he’s the smartest guy in the room and always gets feedback on if he’s showing his own ass (because that’s easy to do when your content consists of stinkpalming stoners and Carlin-esque religion satire).

The book is equal combinations of crudeness and heart, black humor and childlike wonder. It’s a good book for insight on the Hollywood scene, especially for potential indie film-makers. And it gives more inspiration that “you can make it” than “this is how to make it” (which is really all luck more than anything).

the killer angels michael shaara
The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Sharra
(unfinished)

I might have finished if I hadn’t realized there were SparkNotes for it. Also a movie. Also, I didn’t care enough about the characters to know if they lived or died. And these are real characters that I know if they lived or died (spoiler: they all died… eventually).

I put it on my to-read list because I heard that this is the book that inspired Joss Whedon to make Firefly. Well, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. But when I got to 40%, I realized I had gotten everything the book had to offer. The prose is dry and the characters read robotically. Maybe that’s to do with their military upbringing, but it’s hard to sympathize with the team that’s not fighting for the right side, even if they may or may not “believe” in that side’s cause (which is stupid, but I’m digressing).

If this was meant to teach me about war novels, I learned that they are boring. The plot is mechanical. Arguing about strategy–“take that hill.” We took that hill. Our guys got shot. We shot their guys. Argue, argue. Decide on more strategy. It’s how I imagine Warhammer novels are.

And then there’s the constant self-doubt of anyone in power. I imagine that’s true, but it gets annoying to constantly read about. The historical factor isn’t enough to pull me in either. Plus I know how it ends. So what did I come here for?

terry pratchett going postal
Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The city government grants a con artist a second lease on life if he can get the post office up and running. The mail system’s fallen into disrepair since the clacks (a telegraph/semaphore system) went up. But the evil business that owns them has been embezzling and employee safety has paid the price. So it’s David vs. Goliath as the thief has to figure out not only how to eschew his criminal background, but also how to deliver floors full of letters as he avoids the shadowy businessmen.

This is an adventure story. It’s not dissimilar to any other Pratchett – if you’ve read one of them, you’ve know what to expect. And this won’t convince you otherwise. I picked it up because it’s the highest rated/ranked Discworld novel in the series, and thought I should read this if not any others.

I consider Pratchett to the be the fantasy equivalent of Douglas Adams. That means events take a backseat to world-building and situation-explaining. Plot pacing is sacrificed for humor. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Written humor is hard because you lose all elements of timing. So if you can get a chuckle out of anyone, you’ve accomplished a great deal. And this got several chuckles from me.

The key negative is the unlikable characters. The con man doesn’t really want to be there. The government is forcing him in this job on threat of death. His chief ally at the post office is an old man who’d rather see tradition served than do any work. Plus a young man who might be autistic (he collects pins and goes into fits when routine is broken). No one is particularly charming, but Iron Man seems to get away with it. The other problem is too many subplots, due to the too many characters, which is par for the course in Discworld.

It’s a book of contradictions, but a solid four stars.

13 treasures
13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison
(unfinished)

It’s full of cliches. The story makes a promise in the first chapter that doesn’t get fulfilled or hinted at for the next four or five. Which means it’s a cheat.

This girl is apparently the one who can see fairies and thus under their constant threat (because she could reveal their existence). This means a bunch of hijinks that can’t be explained has already happened and the mother has no choice but to send her troubled child to live with her grandmother in the country. There’s a neighbor boy who’s kind of annoying, weird neighbors, parents who don’t understand, falling in love with a library, and a witch who gives her a trinket for no reason. Didn’t I see this already in Coraline?

There’s more narration than dialogue. No one has any personality. The character makes no connections or relationships in this new setting. Events happen without being rooted in some cause. The protagonist has no “save the cat” moment. She’s a whiny inactive protagonist. And lots of telling. There’s even a gypsy woman (and I thought that term was racist).

This is just some thirteen-year-old’s badly conceived fantasy.

the rest of us just live here patrick ness
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

All the characters here are broken. And thus, interesting. But this is not a fantasy novel. This is a standard YA novel with real-life problems. Non-real elements are minor and don’t affect the plot.

Something’s going on in the background of said plot. Something “Harry Potter” or “Buffy” involving a Big Bad and Apocalypses. But that’s not what the story is about. This is about the extras that end up in the B-roll, when the cameras pan over the ambulances. Who are those people?

One is gay. One is going to a war-torn third world country after graduation. One is a recovering anorexic. And one (the main character) has a compulsion disorder. There is magic in the world, but no one is using it. No one wants to. They’ve seen what happens to the kids who do. They’re stressing about college, graduation, dating, whether he-likes-her-but-does-she-like-me. It’s nice to see a deconstruction of the hero’s journey, but hard to do well. This one does. The style reminds me of John Green writing a Harry Potter background character or A.S. King (“Please Ignore Vera Dietz”).

stephen king just after sunset
Just After Sunset by Stephen King
(unfinished)

I read the first six stories. Only one provoked any reaction from me, thus I put it down. They’re all typical Stephen King — overwritten and full of generic description. I think he’s said everything he’s needed to say, and now he’s repeating himself.

Plus the thing about short stories is that they never seem to matter to the world within. They’re never important or epic. There’s no point to invest in one because it’s gone as soon as you do. They’re just slices of life.

They’re also not scary. He’s gone from tangible horror to the existential slipstream hypnosis or something like that. There’s a Family Guy joke where King’s publisher is asking for his next idea. King looks around the office and grabs a lamp. “For my next book, um… this couple is… um… attacked by, um… a lamp monster! Oooh…” There is LITERALLY a story like that, but it’s a stationary bike. “Ooh, look at the scary stationary bike. Ooh, you don’t know where it’s taking you. Ooh, is it making you hallucinate or is it real?” Please.

i hated hated hated this movie roger ebert
I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Roger Ebert

I enjoyed “Your Movie Sucks“, and thought this one would be even better, because it might include more movies I’m familiar with. But that’s not the case. It cuts off in 1999 and includes a ton of stinkers that I don’t remember at all. (There’s even a review of a MST3K movie, I thought that was a neat anachronism.)

This one seems to lack the vitriol that the sequel had. Probably because Ebert hadn’t reached peak cynicism yet. I thought I’d enjoy hearing his witty evisceration of my nostalgic classics, but those were few and far between. It’s too bad you can’t buy just the reviews of the movies you want to read about.

the long way to a small angry planet becky chambers
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I cannot remember why I put this on my to-read list. It’s like a combo of John Scalzi and Leviathan Wakes. The characters are colorful, like a readable Firefly, but painted with a comic book brush. So they’re actually happy–not sullen or brooding or grimdark. That’s weird to me, but welcome. But after I finished, I was of two minds about it.

One one hand, it’s amateur hour. The entire middle could be removed without affecting the plot. Each chapter is episodic and self-contained. Some characters get a lot of screen time. Others you forget are there.

There’s an illusion of consequences to character actions… but nothing really happens. For example, the main character has a “the liar revealed” moment, and it affects nothing because everybody is so nice. No one dies. No one loses an hand or a mentor. Nothing changes anyone or anything. Nobody gets to say “Man, I regret doing that thing” or “I was wrong to do that”.

Finally, the “episodes” get transparently political. There is one that’s an immigration allegory. One that’s a LGBTQ rights allegory. One about religious freedom.

On the other hand, these are fun characters. They’re enjoyable to be around. They’re funny and smart, they don’t make stupid decisions. They’re practical and don’t fall into space opera tropes. It’s a little like Star Wars if it was created by the person who wrote My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It’s not morose empire drama. But I don’t think I’ll read the second one.

The Books I Read: March – April 2017

bookshelf books

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
(unfinished)

I love Barry Lyga, but I had to stop after twenty-five percent. There was too much telling and not enough showing.

The story’s about a teenager who knows all the serial killer tricks because his father was one. So there’s analysis, backstory, and thinking, but not much action. Too much of the text is setup for the ongoing series, not the current story. I wanted to know what’s happening with the murder now, not ten years ago.

It would have been better if the text was presented in flashbacks so there was more immediacy, instead of recall. The narrator is just not interesting enough to allow him total control.

Afraid by Jack Kilborn

This is a real Suicide Squad — not some namby-pamby rogues gallery. A half-dozen sociopaths are given CIA mental conditioning and drug therapy. Then they crash land in sleepy-town, USA. Chaos ensues.

I’ve never read anything as fast-paced as this. Chapters are short, sentences are short, scenes are short. Although the characterization is light, the action is visceral enough and quick enough that you want to see more. You might think it’s a Stephen King-style thriller from the cover and blurb — slow burn, supernatural junk, psychic powers for no reason — but it’s a far cry.

It reminds me of a high-budget B-movie where they went heavy on script and light on special effects. The horror comes from how realistic (as in the killer is a criminal trained to be a soldier, not Pennywise the clown).

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

(unfinished)

I stopped when I reached two bothersome tropes in YA novels that I couldn’t overlook. One was the Wild Teen Party. The all-night rager-kegger thrown by the resident Daddy’s little princess where everyone’s drinking copiously and every room has the door shut. There’s mean girls, drinking games, and bros talking out loud about “getting ass” in front of the people they’re trying to get ass from. And of course, our heroine goes because her friends are there, but she’s too virginal to take part in the hedonistic orgy.

In movies it’s entertaining, but in a book, it’s the crutch of authors who need a place and time for characters to argue or see someone kiss someone else or some other plot point because, literally, everyone is there. It’s a setup to get someone sexually assaulted or overhear/see someone doing naughty which leads to “the liar revealed”, “the misunderstanding”, or “what did I do last night?”. Reality contradicts this to the point of ludicrousness — parties only have a few friends, finding alcohol/drugs is a scavenger hunt in its own right, and no one acts like a chauvinistic douche in front of anyone who could hear it. Yes, there are parties that turn up to eleven, but they’re the exception that proves the rule. The other nine times out of ten, you either play Halo all night or eat ice cream and talk.

Cliche #2 — our oh-so-precious heroes don’t read any conventional books. They read the classics like Bronte and Woolf. And constantly quote them to each other, like it’s a ping-pong challenge to prove which one is dumber (of course, neither loses, they know all the lines like Wuthering Heights was “Austin Powers”). No one reads Twilight or Harry Potter. No one reads anything written in the last century. That’s too mainstream. We’re all Hipster Ariels here.

That’s when I stopped reading. There are two main characters, one girl and one boy. They’re both suicidal. But one is more “eccentric” suicidal and the other is “dramatique”. The boy does it for the negative attention, but then criticizes the girl for doing the same thing. He’s like a manic pixie dream boy, like Johnny Rzeznik or the Phantom of the Opera. He’s special because he’s not one of the jocks who wants sex (see above re: “getting ass”). He’s a special snowflake who wants a meaningful relationship.

I read somewhere that “this is a book about depressed teens, not a book FOR depressed teens.” That makes death into a game. Like you’re watching these teens skirt around the edge of the suicide pool and the big question becomes “will she or won’t she?” Which is wrong. There is no glory in suicide. I’ve looked into that abyss, and I was able to turn away. There’s no romance. There’s no story. It doesn’t release you from your pain, it makes everyone around you feel worse.

At 33% I realized I didn’t give a shit about any of the characters. Books about coping with depressing situations? I’ll stick with “Eleanor and Park”, thanks. Coping with suicide? I’ll stick with “Looking for Alaska”, thanks.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

At one third of the way through, there still weren’t any vampires. I’m not saying I need vampires at page one, but they should be part of the plot setup.

But still, this is one of the books that reminds you why people admire King (or did in the eighties). Despite the tedium of character after character after character, the prose still crackles with quaint expressions and sharp dialogue. Even though no one is working towards a goal, the characters are interesting and there are tons of them.Some of whom only get one scene or two and are then killed off. But the difference is, because they get a little screen time AND something you can stick to them (the bus driver who hates kids, the husband of the former beauty queen who catches her in an affair) their deaths have meaning (even if it’s only an ounce).

It’s the progenitor of many of the Stephen King cliches we take for granted today (setting in Maine, supernatural creatures without origin, one-dimensional bullies, useless police, crazy fundamentalists, rednecks, abusive jerkasses, alcoholics, letdown of an ending) and there’s pacing issues abound. Though they crackle, there are long stints of nothing happening, especially in the beginning. Although it gives the effect of making the town a character (so there is meaning when it becomes doomed), it makes me wonder which parts were written on a coke binge and which weren’t.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

A little Dune, a little Game of Thrones, a little Leviathan Wakes, with the rest being pure Scalzi himself. It’s a great read, like his others. Not one you want to put down. Add to that the fact that’s it fun to be starting a new saga. And the best part is that Scalzi’s created one of his best characters to date in Kiva Lagos (mostly because she swears a lot). And that’s saying something because Scalzi is not known for character-driven plots.

Like the last two Old Man’s War books, this story takes place with a high scope. A forty-thousand foot view. This is not like Zoe’s Tale or The Ghost Brigades where you knew one character intimately. And like the last two Old Man’s War books, the story stays focused on politics and governmental milieu (although it’s not a political thriller).

One negative is that it seemed the good guys win their obstacles a little easy. Like someone grabs the gun from Chekhov’s mantle, but the security manager saw him bring in bullets, and they knew who was going to do it, so they replaced the gun with one of those bang flag things. Challenges were nipped in the bud right away so that the goal became how to make it so no one noticed they nipped the bud while finding out who grew the flower.

If you’re not familiar with Scalzi’s stuff, then this is a good jumping in point. It’s closest to Lock-In for style and The End of All Things for content.

My New Reading Policy

clyde south park i would be so happy

So after looking over my past logs for books (two years really), I realize there’s a reason my yearly rate is on the decline. And it’s not just because of new comics. It’s because I’m reading too many bad books. For 2016 my scoring average was 2.93. That means I read more books that I scored below average than above. This scoring should be at four. It’s not like I grade on a curve. There’s no reason I couldn’t have an entire year of five star books.

So to that end, I’m going to be a bit more picky about my selections. Too many times I’ve been fooled by classics that turn out to be antiquated and overwritten “post-modern literary” tripe. Most of the time I get my selections from my role models, whenever they happen to tweet about what they’re reading. People like John Green, Rainbow Rowell, Mike Krahulik. Sometimes I hear about an interesting concept, like a robot detective. Sometimes it’s a memoir from someone I like. Sometimes it’s a book I feel like I should have read. But now we’ve got some more rules before anything makes it on the “to-read” list.

Books will get minus points for being:

  • More than five years old, with each subsequent year increasing the minus on a graduated scale. Anything written earlier than 2010 gets scrutiny — I won’t know how to write for today if I’m reading for twenty years ago.
  • Too long. Hard to tell because page count doesn’t necessarily equal number of words. But my Kindle has a reading speed monitor and can tell me how long it’ll take to finish something.
  • Less than a 3.9 rating on GoodReads, correlated with a graduated scale of “number of reviews”. In other words, just because everyone else has read it doesn’t mean I should.

Also, I must read a sample of the book before committing. Too many times I forget I can just quit a book and fall to “time-sunk fallacy”. Maybe it’s because if I don’t finish it, I don’t feel right in writing a review for it and can’t add it to my tally. Or it’s “I’ve gotten this far, I may as well finish it at this point”. No! No! Stop that. Bad boy. Quit the bad books. Have a more discerning palate. If you want to stop in the middle of Wuthering Heights because it’s boring, then do it! I don’t care if people think less of me.

Maybe it’s because I never hear of authors telling the truth about books they read. They always gush or say “I ate up everything written by him/her”, like authors need to like everything. Like how actors never say so-and-so was hard to work with or whether the movie they’re in is any good or not.

This means there’ll be a new category in my “The Books I Read” feature — sampled. This is like “unfinished” but in this case, I read the sample and decided based on it whether or not to put it on the “to-reads”. I’ll explain my perceptions of the book, but I won’t be posting the review anywhere, since it’s not fair to judge a book based on a sample IMHO. *

Finally, going to try and avoid non-fiction. Not because non-fiction is tending towards badness, but because it’s not doing my fiction any favors when I’m reading exclusively on one subject. It’s hard to think of ideas for a fantasy-monster story while my mindset is in military women. Also, I’ve just read so much of it this past year I can take a break.

Now, given the criteria above, please understand: I’m not saying there’s anything WRONG with these kinds of books. This is for me and me only — your experiences no doubt vary. But I keep falling into these kinds of books and they’re starting to feel like “reading jails”. No matter how many pages you read you never feel closer to finishing, whether it’s because it’s long or hard to parse or full of fantastic language that slows down the plot. I need to have a higher standard for myself — or at least a fresh start — or I’m going to start hating reading.

*I have no idea how book reviewers do it. I read as fast as I can, but it takes me eight hours to finish a best-seller.

The Worst Books I Read in 2016

bad books running
beast within serena valentino
The Beast Within by Serena Valentino

(original review)

A sloppy, emotionless, and most of all, non-canon telling of the Beast’s life. I don’t know who looked at this and said “print it!” They don’t get key elements from the movie right, and all the new things, like the three witches, make no sense in the context of the original movie. Most harsh is that this will make you hate the beast more than sympathize with him. You don’t need this in your life.

friend diana henstell
Friend by Diana Henstell

(original review)

Yeesh. Eighties robots and school crushes and child geniuses and bringing the dead back to life. Sounds like a fascinating story or a Stephen King novel. But these are concepts in search of a plot… and characters… and setting… and a writer with the chops to bring them all together in a way that leaves you satisfied. Not one character in this book is likable. They’re all egocentric bastards. There’s so much time spent on whining and practically none on providing motivation or milieu to keep the story moving. Bah. I should have known better from viewing the 1980’s b-grade horror movie it was based on.

the third book of swords fred saberhagen

(original review)

Cream rises to the top, grounds settle on the bottom. There’s a reason these books fell into obscurity and this one’s the poster child. You can’t end a trilogy on something so convoluted and messy that brings up more questions than it answers. It’s a bad D&D campaign turned into an unreadable set of books. Learn from my mistakes and let the swords rest.

Now here’s a thing to keep in mind — I finished all these books. I don’t have any rule that says “unfinished books can’t appear on the list”. It’s just that these books were WORSE than ones I gave up on. I have no idea why I finished them. Maybe I was hopeful or had time-sunk fallacy or had nothing better to read. But I had way too many one stars and not enough five stars. Now granted, I am totally fine being critical. But if a book is one star, I probably shouldn’t have finished it in the first place. I’ve got to change my reading habits around if I’m ever going to enjoy reading again.